theend.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a new biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Connor Cleary that explores the wide arena of gamer culture -- where it's been, where it is now, and where it might be going. In this article, he discusses the importance of endings, and considers the strengths and weaknesses of a few specific examples.]

(Spoiler Warning: The first half of this article speaks generally on the topic of endings, the second half will examine a few specific endings and will contain spoilers – there will be a game-specific warning before each paragraph that contains spoilers.)

The end of a game should make you feel like you worked for something that was worth working for. At the very least it should make you say “wow” in one way or another. That conclusion can take many different forms, it can be eye-candy, it can be heart-wrenching, it can be mind-blowing, or it can simply wrap up a story in a really satisfying way. A disappointing ending can destroy an otherwise good game, no matter how much fun you had getting there.

Modern games tend to require a significant time commitment if you actually intend on completing them. Even finishing a “short” game like Darksiders (averaging 10 - 20 hours) can take a few weeks’ worth of free time for someone with a busy schedule. Now, when I was a kid I never thought twice about dropping over a hundred hours into a game, but when you grow up you invariably start looking at your free time differently.

After spending 40+ hours on a game, we don’t want to feel like Hans Moleman when he gets stuck in the Kwik-E-Mart: ”You took [40+ hours] of my life, and I want them back.”

A good ending must play to the strengths of the game it is concluding. To make a few broad generalizations: A light-hearted fantasy game should probably end on a happier-ever-after moment, a deeply psychological game should probably leave you feeling a little contemplative, and a flashy action-hero type game should leave you feeling like the biggest, baddest dude that has ever picked up a sword or a gun. That’s not to say that a surprising ending can’t be extremely satisfying, but to pull a big twist at the last second of a game is risky, and should be done with care.

The old saying “The journey is more important than the destination” certainly applies, but a disappointing destination can easily discolor the memory of the journey that preceded it. Since the end of a game is the last impression you take away, it will have a huge impact on how you remember the game you’ve just played.

But more importantly for the long-term success of a game studio, it will also affect whether or not you buy titles from them in the future. Developers should be very careful with endings, and be sure to put at least as much effort into their endings as they do into any other part of the game.

Examples
Warning: The rest of this column will contain spoilers about the endings of the games listed below. However, all of the games discussed are at least five years old.

Final Fantasy X

When we first meet FFX’s Tidus, he is essentially a narcissistic brat who has never given a thought to anyone else. Throughout the game we see him grow as a character, we watch as he begins to care about the people he’s traveling with and the fate of Spira, even though it is not his world. We eventually learn that saving Spira from Sin means the destruction of Tidus’ world, and Tidus himself. His growth as a character is epitomized by his willingness to make that sacrifice. After the final battle, as Tidus fades away, Yuna finally whimpers “I love you.” The next thing we see is our soft-spoken heroine making an inspirational speech to the masses, promising to never forget the friends and loved ones lost along the way.

This is a classic case of the bittersweet “Sacrificial Ending” which is used to great effect in many games. The sacrificial ending is a great way for game studios to end a game on a note of “Congratulations! You saved the world!” while avoiding the overt cheesiness of a “Happier Ever After” when it isn’t called for. (However, in a heavily fantastical or fairy-tale-esque game, a “Happier Ever After” can really hit the spot.)

Shadow of the Colossus

Our hero enters a forbidden land in order to save the girl he loves, but to do so he must make a deal with a mysterious old God. To save the girl, you must slay sixteen beasts scattered throughout the land for the ancient God. But as you progress, the negative effects on your character become increasingly obvious; he starts to look sick as he absorbs the darkness of each slain beast. You begin to doubt your quest, but you have no choice but to soldier on.

Finally your quest is complete, and wouldn’t you know it? The ancient God—who was probably sealed away for good reason—takes possession of your tainted body. Luckily a cleric of some kind followed you into the forbidden land, and arrives just in time to seal the God away again. Your damsel awakens to find herself stranded in a cursed land with only your wounded horse Agro for company, and a mysterious horned child that appeared when you—and the God—were sealed away.

This is an example of an uncommon but refreshing type of ending, let’s call it the “Thought-Provoking Ending.” Even though the story isn’t exactly wrapped up in a neat little package, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out or a cliffhanger. It is one of the rare breed that doesn’t fit the typical western expectations for endings, but feels like it couldn’t possibly have been improved upon.

Half Life 2

Once again we take the role of beloved geek-hero Gordon Freeman, the baddest scientist to ever pick up a crowbar. But the setting has changed dramatically, this time your goal is insurrection against the mysterious extraterrestrial organization known as the Combine who have taken over the planet. Eventually your goal becomes taking down the Combine’s main stronghold, the massive tower known as the Citadel. With the help of a few allies, and the useful distraction of the human uprising, you finally make your way to the top of the Citadel and blow it up. But here is where the ending becomes extremely disappointing. The enigmatic and creepy G-Man freezes time and pulls you out of the tower before the explosion takes you out.

This particular battle is over because the Citadel has been destroyed, but the rest of the story is left a frayed mess. The consequences of your actions are unclear, the fate of your allies is unclear (including Alyx, who was standing right next to you when the Citadel blew up), and you aren’t even sure what happened to Gordon himself.

This is an example of the infuriating “Cliffhanger Ending,” an unapologetic teaser to make you buy the next installment in the game series. In order to get answers to any of the questions left unanswered—including questions still unanswered from the original Half-Life—you have to buy the expansions, Half Life 2: Episode One and Half Life 2: Episode Two.

With a lesser game, this kind of marketing trick could easily disenfranchise scores of gamers and turn them away from the studio as a whole. But for a game as good as Half Life 2, it works. We are left irritated, to be sure, but we also salivate over the thought of the next installment and must begrudgingly admit: “Well played, Valve. Well played.”